José Cabezón is Professor of Religious Studies and the XIVth Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Cabezón edited a collection of essays entitled Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender (1992), one of the first scholarly works in the field. His participation in a 1999 conference hosted by the Institute for Religion in the Age of Science (IRAS) led to further intensive research and another book, Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism (2017).
In 2007 a group of gay and lesbian Buddhists from the Bay Area wrote a letter to the Dalai Lama, asking to meet with him for clarification of what the group regarded as some of the homophobic tenets of Buddhism. His Holiness agreed to the meeting, during which he expressed sympathy with the group’s concerns but argued that he could not adjudicate the matter by himself, since the tenets are codified in ancient texts. Rather, a consensus among the worldwide Buddhist community was needed.
In his presentation for the Burke Lectureship, Cabezón examines those texts for what they may tell us about fundamental Buddhist views of gender and sexuality. The texts were written largely in Sanskrit between the 1st and 9th centuries C.E. and present a surprisingly complex view of the topic, with some aspects familiar to the modern Western mind and others decidedly foreign. As Cabezón notes, they are often “not what we want to hear.” He traces a woman’s sexual life journey from sexual (biological) embodiment at conception to old age, in the process outlining the belief in four biological sexes (2 normal, 2 abnormal or “queer”) and their determining factors, karma as always being foremost. Determinism – a foundational tenet of Tibetan Buddhism – is key in establishing causal links between sexual biology, gender, sexual desire, and sexual pleasure.
Cabezón also discusses the treatment of male sexuality in the texts, noting that sexual ethics for men are described in exhaustive detail while none are listed for women (other than fidelity to their husbands). Men are allowed access to prostitutes, and prostitution is considered neither a crime nor a moral failing. In fact, prostitutes are uniformly portrayed in a positive light, whereas wives frequently are not. Regarding marriage, the texts maintain that the goal is not expression of love but the creation of strong bonds between families.
By contrast we know little about the lives of “queer” people in early Buddhist societies, since there is little mention of them beyond acknowledging their existence as one of the four genders. It is the classification of genders other than biological male and female as abnormal, along with a strongly patriarchal bent, that troubles many modern Buddhists in the West.
According to José Cabezón the study of ancient Buddhist writings on gender and sexuality may be thought of as the study of a cultural construct, one that remains relevant to Asian Buddhist and Western convert communities today.